Posts Tagged ‘adventure stories’

I’ve just finished a highly-original adventure story narrated by a gorilla. Goes by the name of Sally Jones. Brilliant at chess. Also excellent with ships’ engines and the odd accordion in need of repair.

It comes to us from Sweden where it has already received several prestigious awards, and I’m recommending it for advanced readers ages 10 to adult.

The Murderer’s Ape, written and illustrated by Jakob Wegelius, translated from the Swedish by Peter Graves
originally published in Sweden in 2014; English translation published in 2017 by Delacorte Press
588 pages

I fell in love with it the moment I got my hands on it. This is a book that revels in its physicality and makes every non-digital reader coo with pleasure. Its stout, tome-like size and shape, exotic turquoise cover image, gorgeous end papers decorated with illustrated maps, stylish typography, swoon-worthy catalogue of key characters, and handsome illustrations heading every chapter all add up to one visual treat, a striking gateway to the world unfolding in its story.

One of the endpapers, in its original Swedish.

Plus, there are 80 chapters! 80! Most of them quite, quite short. Immensely satisfying, that is, to polish off 80 chapters, wouldn’t you say?

Of course, the main question is: Has a good yarn been spun? And the answer is: Absolutely.

The novel is framed as a typewritten account of a hair-raising, far-flung, nail-biter of an adventure, reported by its main participant, Sally Jones, a gorilla of most surprising capabilities.

As our story begins, Sally is happily working with her dear friend, a good-hearted sea captain, Henry Koskela, on his little tramp steamer, the Hudson Queen, running cargoes to ports far and wide. While in Lisbon, the two of them are hired by a fellow who turns out to be up to his neck in shady business dealings. Seriously murky stuff going on here. Two treacherous seconds later and Henry is in prison, falsely accused of murder. Sally, bereft, must navigate a world that certainly is unprepared for her while simultaneously following clues that will clear Henry’s name.

Those clues will take her to exotic locations, stunning new adventures, and life-threatening confrontations. She meets a huge cast of characters, some kind, some cruel; some loyal, some treacherous; a wealthy, petulant maharaja; an accordion repairman; an infectious disease specialist; an unscrupulous businessman. She travels in rickshaws, biplanes, and ships’ holds; dines in opulence and hides in cemeteries.

It’s a sweeping odyssey, a bit reminiscent of Jules Verne’s Around the World. In children’s literature, the most akin novel I can think of is Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, though it’s much more suspenseful and plot-driven than Hitty.

Wegelius does not pander to children’s vocabularies or life experiences, giving this book a more classic tone than many contemporary novels. The narrative is peppered with foreign proper nouns which may snooker novice readers but will add to the immersive experience for the savvy. Sally Jones appears to be a highly educated gorilla who writes her memoir in sophisticated, mature prose. And although this is an account of murder and mayhem, the narrative flows along unhurriedly, with lengthy descriptive passages and internal musings. For children who require a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter, this will be a new pace.

My squeamish alarms went off only one time in recommending this to children due to some oblique references to spousal abuse fairly early in the account. I’d have been happier without that element.

This book can’t win many of the big American awards, not being by an American author, but it can win the Batchelder Award for books originally published in a different language and subsequently translated into English and brought to the U.S. — and I hope it does!


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On Monday’s blog I reviewed a number of trollish tales that anyone leaning Scandinavian won’t want to miss.

Today I’ve got a new edition of one of Neil Gaiman’s fantastic stories, as laden with Norseness as a bowl of rice pudding.

odd-and-the-frost-giants-cover-imageOdd and the Frost Giants, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell
published in 2016 by Harper
120 pages

This is the epic story of Odd, a young boy in medieval Norway who is fairly down on his luck. With his father drowned during a Viking raid, his leg lamed via a logging accident, his mom remarried to a lazy lout, and a long sluggish winter ahead cooped up with cranky villagers, Odd determines to hike into the forest and live independently in his father’s old hunting lodge.

Sooner than you can say Thor’s Hammer, though, Odd encounters a curious threesome — a fox, an eagle, and a bear. These three are definitely more than meets the eye. In fact, they’re Norse gods, transformed and deposed by some cunning, evil, Frost Giants.


Journey with Odd and his companions to Asgard to right the wrongs in this heroic tale brimming with cups of mead and tricksters tricked, frozen landscapes, a rainbow bridge, and the relentless pursuit of Beauty. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller for the ages, and he spins this one magnificently. It would make a wonderful read-aloud for ages 7 and up.


This edition, illustrated by Chris Riddell, was released last year. Riddell’s masterful ink drawings cast an enchanted, mythical sense. Burly bears, hook-beaked eagles,and tremendous, shaggy, frost giants leap off the pages. The black-and-white images are perfect for the icy setting. Some of the drawings are set on metallic silver paper — a sumptuous, Viking-esque touch. I adore this meeting of text and art.

In 2009, when the book was first published, Brett Helquist did the illustrations. His are extraordinary as well. Here’s a little glimpse of his work:



Whichever volume is accessible to you, then, do yourself a favor and dive into this extraordinary adventure.

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School Ship Tobermory, written by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrations by Iain McIntosh
published in Scotland in 2015; first U.S. edition 2016 by Delacorte Press


You may know him as the author of the vast No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but Alexander McCall Smith has written a number of chapter books for young readers as well.

This latest one is a fast-clipped adventure set on a school ship. That is, this lucky crew of boys and girls are going to school aboard the good ship Tobermory, learning the ropes of sailing and having a few other lessons to boot, while sailing among the islands off the Scottish mainland. Nice gig, huh?


Not so fast, though, because although the majority of these children are responsible, well-mannered, bright, and eager persons, there are a few bad apples in the barrel. Nasty ol’ William Edward Hardtack, for one. He and his fellow bullies aim to rule the ship with snark and cruelty.

Ben and Fee, twelve-year-old twins, are the newest students aboard the Tobermory. It doesn’t take but a hot minute for them to land on the wrong side of Hardtack and Co. That means that as well as learning how to scrabble up those impossibly high masts and how to use proper sailing terminology — That’s not a staircase! It’s a companionway, if you please! — they’ve got to outmaneuver the rotten tricks of the bully squad.


The adventures are ratcheted up when a film crew on a neighboring vessel take on some Tobermory students as extras. Ben is one of those lucky kids, but before long, he’s sniffed out some mighty suspicious activity aboard the Albatross. What are they really up to?

Smith’s story reads like a tale from bygone days. There’s a simplicity, naiveté, and old-fashioned decorum of language that makes this feel a bit like a story written in the 1950s. The bad guys are thoroughly bad. The good folks are 100% good. The conflict is a straightforward cinch to follow. Even the danger, though there is potential for great harm, never turns violent, and at the height of his distress, the Captain’s strongest exclamation is, “My Goodness!”

The book takes an unusual tack with the illustrations, inserting comic panels at various places within the story that recap some of the recent events. These make for jolly interruptions.


All of this makes the book a great choice for young-but-advanced readers. A 7-year-old with mad reading skills could make her way through this without being in over her head with mature content, even though it’s 215 pages long. My one quibble is McCall’s repeated references to one student’s “rather large front teeth” a completely unnecessary detraction and unfortunate focus on appearance. The second Tobermory tale, The Sands of Shark Island, is already out in the UK.


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withering by sea cover imageWithering by Sea, written and illustrated by Judith Rossell
originally published in Australia in 2014; first U.S edition 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
261 pages

Set in Victorian England, in the gloomy spa town of Withering-by-Sea, populated by three Roald Dahl-esque aunts, an evil J.K. Rowling-esque magician, one plucky orphan, a showman and his musical cats,  an ever-loyal girl named Gert — this tale coming to us from Australia is a tantalizing, spine-tingling adventure!

withering  by sea illustration judith rossell

Stella Montgomery, age 11, lives with her dour aunts — Aunt Condolence, Aunt Temperance, and Aunt Deliverance. All three are about as pleasant as boiled cabbage. Their lodgings are at Hotel Majestic, where residents spend their days “wrapped up and propped in cane chairs in the long sunroom, sipping glasses of murky water.” Nasty stuff, according to Stella.

withering by sea illustration4 judith rossell

Confined to a dreary existence, constrained to dullness as though by an iron corset, it’s little wonder that Stella creeps out of her rooms by night, ventures into the Conservatory, and pores over her tattered world atlas, dreaming of Places Beyond.

It is there, surrounded by dripping ferns and hissing steam pipes that Stella witnesses a crime. And is entrusted by a most mysterious gentlemen with something very peculiar. A thing that creepy Professor Starke desperately craves. He’ll stop at nothing to snatch it from her, and as he’s an evil, powerful magician…that’s saying something! 

withering by sea illustration2 judith rossell

Gloriously eccentric characters and delightful, period prose kept me smiling through this book even as the tension ratcheted up higher and higher! It’s a complete lark for those stout enough to manage the danger-and-fright levels of the first Harry Potter volume.  Great read-aloud for a wide age span as well.

withering by sea illustration3 judith rossell

Rossell has illustrated it in quintessentially-Victorian, ink-and-watercolor pictures and the whole book is simply beautiful. Almond pages with blue ink. Mmmmm…nice touch. Three cheers for Stella!


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the nine lives of jacob tibbs cover imageThe Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs, by Cylin Busby, illustrated by Gerald Kelley
published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf

Does the cat on the cover of this book make you think purry, fuzzy thoughts? Warm as toast thoughts? Does he conjure up domestic scenes of warm firesides?

Well, banish those notions because this is a nautical cat who leads a hair-raising, stormy existence on a clipper ship in the 1830s. And those nine lives of his? Good thing he’s got every one of them!the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration gerald kelley

His name is Jacob Tibbs and he’s the runt son of one of the keenest, most faithful mousers Captain Natick has ever known. His mother, Mrs. Tibbs, is an essential crew-member of the Melissa Rae where she not only controls the vermin population, but has an uncanny knack of sensing approaching storms and warning her captain. She’s a source of good luck to a boatload of superstitious sailors.

Jacob, however, looks to be a bit of a disappointment. Puny and bumbling. Hardly able to keep his balance on the pitching ship. Smaller than the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration3 gerald kelleythe rats he’s supposed to exterminate. With four unlucky white paws, no one really wants him aboard.

Calamity strikes Jacob’s life early, leaving him to prove himself a worthy ship’s cat, and he needs every ounce of moxie his tiny body can muster. For this is a star-crossed journey if there ever was one, replete with deadly storms, grievous injuries, mutiny, and cold despair. 

 Having the cat narrate the story does soften this from other sea yarns such as Armstrong Sperry’s All Sail Set. Still, there are some gruesome play-by-plays of Jacob killing his prey that made me shudder a bit, and quite a bit of general nastiness from rogue sailors and such. I’d try it with ages 9 and up.

the nine lives of jacob tibbs illustration2 gerald kelley

It’s lightly illustrated with atmospheric, black-and-white drawings by Gerald Kelley. The ending was a little abrupt for my taste, but all told, it’s a wicked-good seafaring adventure and not so many of those are being written just now. 262 pages.

Trundling further into murder and mayhem is this fabulous, Dickensian tale:

smith cover imageSmith: The Story of a Pickpocket, by Leon Garfield
first published in 1967; published by The New York Review Children’s Collection in 2013

Set in 18th-century London, this gripping mystery-adventure revolves around Smith, a cunning 12-year-old boy who makes his living by picking pockets, then disappearing like a whisper of fog before his unlucky victims have the faintest notion of his presence.

One day Smith picks the bulging pocket of a gentleman who is shortly thereafter murdered. Dread seizes Smith as he realizes that the document he purloined is apparently valuable enough to kill for. What has he got his hands on? There’s no way of knowing, for Smith cannot read.ot21

Good fortune and calamity yank Smith one way and the other as he tries to evade the chilling men in brown who would kill him in a flash to get ahold of the papers. Smith is desperate to learn what these documents are and how he can turn them to his great advantage. Who can he trust to help him, and who are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Leon Garfield was a brilliant writer with a superlative command of the English language. This classic work is not written in an easy, contemporary style, yet it reads in a gorgeous cadence. It’s an outstanding choice for reading aloud or for handing to

This photograph shows the entrance of The Oxford Arms Inn which stood in a short lane leading out of the west side of Warwick Lane, where this photograph was taken from. The inn was demolished in 1878. This is one of a collection of images commissioned by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London to record historic buildings that were being threatened with demolition.

middle-graders who aren’t afraid of a challenging vocabulary.

Garfield unleashes a host of dark, criminal forces against young Smith. The story is peppered with murderers, highwaymen, charlatans, and the assorted ruffian, so expect that.

At the same time, what is so stunning is that it’s not merely an adventure. Instead, the author crafts his flawed characters to reveal rich truths about human nature. One character in particular — an old, blind, barrister — wavers between mercy and harshness, belief and distrust, eventually owning his pitiless understanding of the law in a moving, revelatory scene.

All of this makes the book a great read for adults, and an excellent choice for book clubs for ages 11 and up.

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If you’ve got a young bookworm who would love a short Christmas read, or are looking for a short read-aloud for the holidays, here are a couple suggestions:

have fun anna hibiscus cover imageHave Fun, Anna Hibiscus!
by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia

first American edition published in 2011 by Kane Miller

Anna Hibiscus is our favorite little Nigerian girl.

This Christmas, she’s flying to Canada to visit her grandmother for the holidays. It’s the first time Anna will meet her. And it’s also the first time she’ll come face to face with snow!have fun anna hibiscus illustration lauren tobia

In fact, there’s newness everywhere Anna turns, from Grandma’s quiet home instead of her boisterous, extended family, to dogs that live inside houses and chocolate cereal for breakfast! 

Although Anna does miss home, she quickly feels happy and comfy in this new, cold land and has quite a merry time on her Canadian holiday. A joyous read for independent readers age 7 or 8, or as a read-aloud for ages 4 and up. 109 pages with charming black-and-white illustrations.

Warton's Christmas Adventure cover imageWarton’s Christmas Eve Adventure, by Russell E. Erickson, illustrated by Lawrence Di Fiori
published in 1977 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Co.

I love Warton and Morton, the two toad brothers with a knack for falling into adventure.

It is Christmas. Morton is exceedingly busy in the kitchen with all his baking, so Warton gets fidgety. He decides to manufacture some ice skates and give ’em a go while he waits for Christmas Eve.

However, Warton has not reckoned on a blizzard, a little lost mole,warton's christmas adventure illustration di fiori and one large and grouchy bear. All of which add up to a cold, anxious, and hazardous escapade.

When all is said and done, Christmas Eve is celebrated with gusto, and one grumpus of a bear learns what a lovely thing a bit of kindness can be.

I wish they would bring these books back in print. My kids loved every Warton and Morton story. Great read-aloud for ages 5 and up, or independent read for ages 7 and up. 95 pages with di Fiori’s wonderful and warty ink drawings.

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November feels like a hunkering down sort of month. The damper and chillier the weather, the better it sounds to light some candles and snuggle up with a good book. These ten are just the ticket. I promise you won’t want to miss a single one!

how the sun got to coco's house cover image

How the Sun Got to Coco’s House, written and illustrated by Bob Graham
published in 2015 by Candlewick Press

Brilliant as always, Bob Graham beautifully, quietly, leads us around the world, tracing the journey of sunlight. Its golden rays skidder over lonely ocean waves and tinge a snowy woodland with violet shadows. It glints off minarets and washes palely over villages.

how the sun got to coco's house interior bob graham

Finally it beams into Coco’s window, awakening her to the delights of a new day. Graham’s uncanny ability to portray a hush of wonder, to explore the simultaneous vastness and intimacy of our world, to make a puddle of sunshine feel like the miracle it is — is unrivaled. Another beauty for ages 2 and up.

the queen's hat cover image

The Queen’s Hat, written and illustrated by Steve Antony
originally published in the UK; first published in the U.S. in 2015 by Scholastic Press

Queen Elizabeth herself, accompanied by one faithful corgi, are off to visit someone verrrrry special, but with a mighty swirl, the wind sweeps her favorite hat right off her royal head!

the queen's hat illustration steve antony

Follow that hat! Scamper through the streets of London, scramble up and over those Trafalgar lions, tumble over the turrets of the Tower Bridge, right along with the queen, her corgi, and a vast number of red-coated palace guards. It’s an incredibly delightful British romp!

Stylish illustrations, buckets of energy, and you will LOVE the special someone she’s rushing to visit. Ages 2 and up.

the tea party in the woods cover image

The Tea Party in the Woods, written and illustrated by Akiko Miyakoshi
originally published in Japan; English translation edition 2015 by Kids Can Press

Little Kikko has an important errand — she’s to deliver a pie to her grandmother. Through the silent, snowy woods she struggles until she finds herself at a mysterious house.

the tea party in the woods illustration akiko miyakoshi

To her surprise, a curious party of forest creatures are gathered there, who warmly welcome Kikko to tea. Such a delicious tea, too, and afterwards the kindly animals form a merry parade, guiding Kikko straight to her grandmother’s door.

the tea party in the woods illustration2 akiko miyakoshi

It’s a richly, fanciful tale, illustrated in such loveliness it about breaks your heart. Gorgeous and magical for ages 4 and up.

tiptoe tapirs cover image

Tiptoe Tapirs, written and illustrated by Hanmin Kim
first published in Korea; first US edition 2015 by Holiday House

I’ve got a soft spot for tapirs. They were my youngest daughter’s favorite animal once upon a time, and they’re Hanmin Kim’s favorite, too! So…

tiptoe tapirs interior hanmin kim

This irresistible tale whisks us into the jungle — the noisy, raucous jungle — where only Tapir and her Little One practice a gentle quietness, tiptoe-tiptoeing their way along. How their silent ways and Little Tapir’s generous heart save the day for someone quite ferocious — that’s the jaunty tale in this book.

Energetic illustrations in watercolor, drawing ink, and marker give a marvelously bold, exotic vibe to these pages. Splendid, for ages 2 and up (with some scary, toothy parts!)

wait cover image

Wait, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis
published in 2015 by Roaring Brook Press

It’s a typical morning for this mom and her young son — she’s in a rush to get where they’re going, and he’s in no hurry at all.

wait interior by antoinette portis

With simplicity and clarity, Antoinette Portis ushers us into these scenes. Mama remains focused on hurrying along, eyes forward, resisting all the tugging and pleading to “Wait!” Until finally, one showstopper makes even Mama agree that pausing, waiting, is a beautiful idea. I love Portis’ warm encouragement to slow down.

Masterfully rendered with a bare minimum of words, kids ages Under-Two and up will love this.

two mice cover image

Two Mice, written and illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier
published in 2015 by Clarion Books

Two little mice have three yummy cookies to share, and you don’t have to know much about math to figure out that this equals one pesky problem!

two mice interior by sergio ruzzier

That’s just the beginning of a brisk set of one-two-three adventures in this adorable book for very young children. Sergio Ruzzier’s warm, colorful illustrations are packed with personality and charm. It’s got all the right ingredients for reading again and again to Under-Two’s and up.

what in the world cover image

What in the World?: Numbers in Nature, written by Nancy Raines Day, illustrated by Kurt Cyrus
published in 2015 by Beach Lane Books

This lovely book beckons us to look at the world, to wonder, to notice. “What in the world comes one by one?A nose. A mouth. The moon. The sun.

what in the world interior by day and cyrus

Count up to ten and set your minds to work, considering what comes in different sized sets. Plus, what comes in numbers too big to count? Striking, cool illustrations cast a spell of beauty and grandeur throughout. The whole concept begs to be turned into a wonderful way to pass the time, whether in the city or wilderness. Great choice for ages 2 and up.

the wonderful fluffy little squishy cover image

The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy, written and illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna
originally published in France; first American edition in 2015 by Enchanted Lion Books

Edith — or Eddie as she is known — is five-and-a-half years old. She is at that difficult stage in life when all the folks around her seem to be especially brilliant at something, while she does not have any particular talent at all.

the wonderful fluffy little squishy illustration beatrice alemagna

Now it’s her mom’s birthday, and Eddie is determined to find her a present. She has a hazy notion that her mom would like something Fluffy and Squishy. Well, you cannot believe the trouble it is to find something to fit that description, but Eddie does! Turns out that it’s just the best birthday gift EVER!

Beatrice Alemagna’s brilliant, and brilliantly-colored illustrations blast this slightly off-kilter story to the moon. So full of love and earnestness and that deep urge to find your place in the world. Ages 4 and up.

the mellops go spelunking cover image

The Mellops Go Spelunking, written and illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
first published in Germany in 1978; this edition published in 2015 by Phaidon Press

Our family has adored the Mellops for all these many years so I’m uber-excited that Phaidon is republishing these and I hope to goodness sake you grab any Mellop title you see and gobble it up.

the mellops go spelunking illustration tomi ungerer

They are an adventurous, warm-hearted family of Pigs, and in this episode they’re off spelunking. Stalagmites and cave paintings and glittering caverns, ho! But there’s much more to this adventure than that! Rollicking good fun, and as always, Mother’s delicious cream cake. Ages 3 and up.

out of the woods cover image

Out of the Woods: A True Story of an Unforgettable Event, written and illustrated by Rebecca Bond
published in 2015 by Farrar Straus Giroux

This strange-but-true story takes place in 1914 in the forests of Ontario where young Antonio Willie Giroux lived in a sort of hotel that his mother ran. Travelers stayed there as well as the trappers, lumberjacks, and miners who worked nearby. It was a marvelous place to spend a boyhood.

out of the woods illustration rebecca bond

But when a raging forest fire roars through the woods heading straight for the Giroux hotel, it’s a deadly serious place to be. As Antonio and the hotel folk escape to safety, an incredibly curious thing takes place which you will have to read to believe. Rebecca Bond should know…because Antonio was her grandfather.

Handsome, atmospheric illustrations will whisk you back in time and give you a front-row seat to an extraordinary occurrence. Ages 5 and up.

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